Major Scale Practice, Part I
The fundamental starting point for all of your improvisation study should be the Major scale. Learning all fingerings for all twelve keys should be your first task. Make sure you can execute the fingerings smoothly and evenly in all keys and octaves from memory. Use a metronome to track your progress in terms of speed and evenness starting first with quarter notes. Speed is not the issue at first, but rather playing the correct notes evenly with good tone.
A good method of doing this is to do the use following sequence. Start with your first key or fingering, depending on your instrument. Set the metronome at a speed that you can keep, and for 15 minutes, without stopping, play up and down the scale, making sure you hit the right notes, and stay with the metronome. Then take a minimum 5 minute break, making sure you get away from the instrument. After the break, come back and resume your practice and review the scale you did that day.
The break is very important. Get away from the instrument and do not play anything else. The first 18 minutes is like taking a picture. The break is like letting it develop. Without a break, it is like taking one picture right over another, until you have the images all jumbled up into one. Give yourself time to absorb the work you have just done before moving on.
The next day, go on to your second key or fingering and repeat the same sequence. This time after the break, when you review, you want to review what you practiced that day, plus the previous days practice also. Each day, do a new key or fingering and during your review, go over that days practice and any previous days practice until you have finished all keys or fingerings. At this point, it takes a total of 21 days before anything you have played will be absolutely memorized, so continue to practice for that time period to commit all the scales to memory.
This type of practice will enable you to get all of your scales in all keys memorized, so that you will be able to play them smoothly without hesitation. The second benefit of this practice is that it works on training you ear to hear each key. Playing what you hear is your goal, so by doing careful, slow practice at first, you train your ear to recognize the patterns that you are playing.
To take it a step further, practice the scale from the lowest possible note on your instrument in the key you are practicing, to the highest. For example, on a stringed instrument, play the lowest to highest note in the key you are practicing from the lowest to highest string and back down in each position. This will teach you all possible notes that can be played in the key, without relying on always starting on the root note.
Often when you hear someone improvising you can recognize that there are patterns in what you are hearing, but you are unable to name or reproduce those patterns at will. The way to do this is to play and practice as many patterns and variations of those patterns that you can, so that you will then be able to recognize anything that you hear. With that in mind, we will continue next month with more Major scale practice patterns.